DREGS Magazine: Response to Melissa Farley

by Carolina Talavera
Having read the article “Legal or not, prostitution remains a harmful institution” by Melissa Farley in DREGS magazine, I write to comment and correct. In her piece, Farley makes a number of claims such as that prostitution is uniquely dangerous and damaging, and supports these claims with statistics and other evidence. On closer scrutiny much of this evidence is either manipulated inappropriately or is inaccurate. Additionally, the statistics she uses are vague and inadequately referenced.

Farley bases a majority of her arguments on research done through “Prostitution Research and Education” a non-profit organization founded by Farley herself. While the organization has conducted a large amount of research, most of these studies have not been peer-reviewed and the methodology used in them is questionable. Ronald Weitzer discusses Farley’s research and makes the following statements:

Moreover, most of the empirical studies she cites are deeply flawed methodologically. Sampling biases and other procedural problems, in greater or lesser degree, pervade her literature, yet Farley never addresses this problem because that might undermine her sweeping claims.[i]

What about Farley’s own research procedures? Much is left opaque. In one study, Farley and Barkan (1998) interviewed street prostitutes in San Francisco. No indication is given to the breadth or diversity of their sample, or the method of approaching people on the street.[ii]

Finally, though Farley lists the topics covered in the interviews, none of the actual questions is presented. It is especially important to know the exact wording of questions, especially on this topic, because question wording may skew the answers.[iii]

One study concluded that sex workers had high rates of assault and rape and thus high rates of PTSD. Yet studies reveal that susceptibility to PTSD has been linked to traumas experienced earlier in an individual’s life, though diagnosis of PTSD continues to be entangled in a greater discussion of the politics of victimhood and trauma[iv] (Finley 2011).  Essentially, Farley’s research manipulates data to support her argument and in this case misleads readers about the nature of PTSD, when in reality it’s possible that sex workers develop PTSD while in the industry but because of previous traumas. Farley also makes no comparison with rates of assault, rape or PTSD in other groups of women such as domestic workers essentially isolating sex work from other jobs.

This misrepresentation of data is a common theme in Farley’s research, such as in another study[v] conducted in New Zealand which concluded that Maori women were entering prostitution as young as nine years old. This statistic seems to stem from two Maori women who in response to a question about their first sexual experience [my italics] answered that it was at the age of nine. This became a claim about Maori women in general and the age they entered prostitution. How can this be justified? Did researchers conflate sex with prostitution? Did they conclude that if a young girl is having sex it must be rape and conflate rape with prostitution? Either way we wonder if these kind of unsubstantiated assumptions and interpretations of young girls experience would have been so freely and carelessly made if the girls had not been Maori. This blatant manipulation of data and the conclusions which Farley draws from these conjured facts conveniently supports her argument that sex work is fundamentally exploitative and violent.

It is easy to paint a picture of sex workers as victims and sex work as inherently harmful if the other types of work that women do are ignored. Do domestic workers internationally experience a similarly high rate of violence? How much abuse, rape and other violence have nurses, barmaids, journalists and estate agents experienced? Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes, a self-help organisation of sex workers comments: “Far from being victims we are campaigning for an end to the criminalisation of sex work and to be recognised as workers with rights like other workers.”

If we look at the bigger picture we can see that the position of sex workers (70% of whom are mothers) in society is the product of social, economic and political structures which perpetuate structural inequality and the marginalization of many populations. By encouraging the view that men that buy sex are the reason for the continued growth of prostitution, distracts the conversation away from these structural issues and inequalities which are perhaps more to blame than the individuals who purchase it. For instance, poverty in the UK is rising[vi] and families are increasingly relying on food banks to feed themselves.[vii]

Farley also claims that high levels of child abuse among sex workers demonstrates that child abuse victims are more likely to go into prostitution. This is again used by Farley to paint a picture of sex work as uniquely damaging and of sex workers as victims. Yet the Impact Study for the New Zealand Law Review Committee[viii], conducted by the University of Otago, Christchurch Department of Public Health and General Practice, found that the primary reason people gave for entering into sex work, was financial:

73% of participants needed the money to pay for household expenses

Financial incentives were more important to female sex workers than to male or transgender sex workers

Nearly half of street-based, male and transgender sex workers had no other source of income.

Flexibility of working hours and financial benefits were advantageous in terms of child care arrangements.

(Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the Health and Safety Practices of Sex Workers 2007, p. 9)

In the article Farley claims that 35% of street based sex workers said they were forced to work, yet scrutiny of the report reveals that more than half reported that they started working because of a friend who was already in the industry, and only 8.1 percent “indicated that they had been made to work”[ix].

The positive outcomes of the New Zealand Law Reform outlined in the NZ Impact Study are ignored by Farley who claims that not much has changed since decriminalization, even arguing that prostitution has ‘spiraled out of control’.  Of course, any new law reform requires time to work out its problems and complications. Prostitution reform is no different.  But Farley makes no reference to key changes that indicate major improvements in sex workers’ situation such as that the majority of participants interviewed were aware of their rights under the new law and that it was contributing to lessening the stigma around sex work[x]. Participants also stated that with the PRA they felt more ‘legitimated’ than before[xi].  Notably, due to the decriminalization of sex work, participants found that their new rights gave them more negotiating power with clients and management; gave them the right to refuse to do a client; protected them from violent attacks; were mentally enabling, allowing them to feel supported and safe[xii].

Farley, on the other hand, claims that since decriminalisation was introduced there has been a 200-400% increase in street-based sex workers, a 300% increase in illegal brothels and a growing population of punters. This is completely contradictory to the conclusions made in the study which found that “there has been little impact on the number of people entering the industry post-decriminalization[xiii]. So the decriminalization of sex work did not contribute to more people entering the sex industry but in any case (even if it is true) increased numbers of sex workers does not mean an increase in coercion.

Another of Farley’s false claims is that decriminalization in New Zealand has made no difference to the ability of street workers to report bad clients to the police. In fact, the report reveals that the police had the second highest percentage (84.5%) for reports of bad experiences from sex workers, second to fellow workers[xiv]. According to the study, the NZ police were “identified as being important in providing information on bad clients”[xv].

Participants also felt more positive towards the police since sex work had been decriminalized[xvi]. Street-based workers “were especially positive about police relations with workers”, also describing that the police were more visible on the streets since decriminalisation[xvii]. Some also noted the positive benefits of having “specialised police working with sex workers, so that the sex workers could forge relationships with them”[xviii]. According to the study, over half of the participants who had worked in the industry before the PRA “reported that police attitudes had changed for the better following decriminalization”[xix].

Street workers were also accessing other crucial support with three quarters of participants reporting that they received information, including on their employment rights, from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective[xx] [xxi].

All this contrasts quite dramatically with Sweden where, under the 1999 Sex Purchase Act, the criminalization of the purchase of sexual services has had many unintended consequences including increased stigma around both the purchaser and sex worker[xxii]. Sex workers also stated that because law is based on the idea that sex workers are victims it “propagates stereotypical notions about sex workers”[xxiii]. “The National Board of Health and Welfare report that due to the ban on clients sex workers feel less trust in social authorities, police and the legal system” and essentially prevents them from seeking help [xxiv]. Clients don’t report any pimps or exploitation for fear of being arrested themselves. Under this system, clients have more bargaining power over sex workers and have essentially driven the industry further underground making it more dangerous for sex workers; in other words, the news from Sweden is not “way better”, as Farley claims.

Farley also makes no distinction between legalization (the law in the Netherlands and Nevada) and decriminalization, as introduced by the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) in New Zealand. There is, however, a significant difference between these two models. Under legalization sex work is legal in certain areas and is regulated by the state. Decriminalization abolishes the criminal law around sex work and allows sex workers to work on their own or together with others both on the street and in premises. Decriminalization in New Zealand, introduced as a result of sex workers’ demands for health and safety, made a distinction between small brothels where sex workers kept control of their earnings and larger operator-controlled brothels which required a license. But crucially both licenses and zoning are dealt with under civil law compared to zoning in the Netherlands where sex workers who work outside designated areas face criminal sanctions. Despite such fundamental differences between these two models Farley still uses the problems evident from legalization to discredit decriminalization.

Essentially, decriminalization is not the same as legalization, and sex work is definitely not the same as sex trafficking. Melissa Farley shows how easy it is to simplify such a complicated topic as sex work and mislead readers to believe what you want by misrepresenting complex issues and data. This misinformation can have devastating consequences. Figures show that arrests, raids and prosecutions of sex workers have risen in recent years (Prosecutions for brothel-keeping, the charge most often used against women working together from premises, have skyrocketed from four in 2003, to over 80 in 2010). In the run up to the 2012 London Olympics[xxv], claims of widespread trafficking have been used to clear sex workers off the streets and raid premises[xxvi].

Sheila Farmer was one such woman prosecuted for brothel-keeping for working with friends after a vicious rape made her vow never to work again.  An 18-month campaign led to the prosecution being dropped because it was determined that there was not enough evidence to proceed. Farmer described how sex workers are denied protection from violence and how criminalisation undermines safety.

“When sex workers report attacks, we face prejudice too. Police may arrest us rather than our attackers. Violent criminals know they can get away with it and attack others, prostitute or not. Don’t the police know this, or don’t they care?

She goes on to say:

I should be able to work in the job I choose without being victimised – life is hard enough. Prostitution has been decriminalised in New Zealand: sex workers can go to the police and insist on their right to safety. If such changes were made here it could save many lives. And it could make it easier to leave prostitution if we wanted to. [xxvii]


[i]Pg. 940. Weizer, Ronald (2005). “Flawed Theory and Method in Studies of Prostitution”. Violence Against Women.

[ii] P. 941 Weitzer (2005)

[iii] P. 941 Weitzer (2005)

[iv] Finley, Erin P. Fields of Combat: Understanding PTSD among Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Ithaca: ILR, 2011.

[v] http://www.parliament.nz/en-NZ/PB/Debates/Debates/Speeches/1/d/f/47HansS_20030611_00001073-Beyer-Georgina-Prostitution-Reform-Bill.htm

[viii] http://www.justice.govt.nz/policy/commercial-property-and-regulatory/prostitution/prostitution-law-review-committee/publications/impact-health-safety/prostitution-law-review-committee

[ix] NZ Impact Study, Pg. 81

[x] NZ Impact StudyPg. 130

[xi] Pg. 139

[xii] Pg.167-168

[xiii] Pg.171

[xiv] Pg. 120-22

[xv] Pg. 120

[xvi] Pg. 164

[xvii] Pg. 164

[xviii] Pg. 164

[xix] Pg. 170

[xx] Pg. 122

[xxi] Pg. 142

[xxiii] Pg. 21

[xxiv] Pg. 21